2021 Pittsburgh Penguins Preview

Tristan Jarry will play a huge role in the success of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2020-21 NHL season. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Penguins

It has been a long road since there was some optimism regarding the Pittsburgh Penguins. Back-to-back embarrassing postseason losses to the New York Islanders via a 4-0 sweep and a defeat in the qualifiers to the 12th seeded Montreal Canadiens has left a sour taste in the mouths of both members of the organization and the Pens faithful.

With the Penguins beginning an attempt at halting the franchise’s downward trajectory as the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin era creeps to a close, they will look to play winning hockey for the first time in over a year. Their record in exactly the past 12 months sits below .500 with the humiliating 3-1 loss propelling them into that position.

Every new season brings a fresh sense of hope surrounding most NHL teams unless you are the current Detroit Red Wings or the Los Angeles Kings, you will have to wait a few more years for that. The Penguins fit the scenario as a team that has playoff contenders written all over them.

As last year’s unprecedented season has been laid to rest, let’s preview what the Pens bring to the dinner table for the 2020-21 season.

Crosby and Malkin still churning

A lot of skepticism has surrounded the aging duo of Crosby and Malkin and whether they can still compete at a high level. No player is immune to Father Time as both superstar forwards have seen a decline in their play.

It has been no secret that the legendary pair were relatively invisible the past two playoff runs as they recorded four points, respectively in those eight games. The wheels have slowed down, but it is not the end of the road quite yet.

In the shortened season last year, Sid and Geno still scored healthily over a point per game, which put both of them within the top 15 of that category.

While Crosby still performed at a high-level in terms of production, it was notable that his play had declined as he was still recovering from a sports hernia that required surgery in mid-November of 2019.

With an early exit from the playoffs, it has given Crosby the necessary rest for him to fine-tune his game in preparation for another deep playoff run.

Malkin will also benefit from the time off as he still is expected to have another extremely productive year, especially on the power play.

Crosby and Malkin are heading towards, if not already on the wrong side of their primes, but they are still tremendous leaders who can carry this Penguins team on another Stanley Cup run.

Need for speed

The NHL has seen a significant turnover in the past decade from defensive-minded and physical teams to high-octane offenses with quick speed.

Pittsburgh and General Manager Jim Rutherford moved on from a handful of slower skating players, including net-front staple Patric Hornqvist, along with Justin Schultz and Jack Johnson on the back end.

With those departures, the Pens added Kasperi Kapanen, who will undoubtedly improve this offensive group’s speed department. Playing alongside Crosby, Kapanen will help push this line’s pace as Jake Guntzal does not trail too far behind with his quickness.

Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker will also be a speedy winger tandem flanking Malkin. These two are aggressive on the forecheck and will aid in the production of Malkin.

Brandon Tanev and Teddy Blueger possess great speed on the bottom six and will help set the tone for the third and fourth line guys. Compared to the last few seasons, the difference in personnel this year could increase speed and production for the offense.

Defensive depth

It was a painful few seasons on the back end with Johnson’s forgettable play, but now that the pain has been alleviated, the Pens can move on and focus on what they have in store.

With Schultz also departing from the team, Pittsburgh has upgraded their defensive group as both Johnson and Schultz had a miserable ending to their careers in the city.

Brian Dumoulin will look to have a successful season following an injury-riddled 2019-20. His stay at home play style will allow his partner, Kris Letang, to roam free and step up into offensive rushes. These two are a part of one of the more underrated pairings in the league.

Marcus Pettersson and John Marino have both proven that they are NHL caliber defensemen, but they still have another level that they can reach. Marino can be an offensive threat in the coming years on the blue-line for the Pens.

Shaping up the back end, the newcomers, Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci, will look to step in and be productive right away. There was a lot of controversy surrounding both deals with Matheson carrying a hefty contract and Ceci’s declining play, but both will look to shine with their new squad.

Jarry, boom or bust

It was one of the quickest and most impactful rises and falls from stardom in Pittsburgh sports history with Matt Murray as he was shipped away in the offseason. After winning two Stanley Cups with the team, his declining play and blame dealt on him after the Montreal playoff series made it a deal nearly inevitable at that point.

Tristan Jarry has now been granted the top role between the Pens’ pipes, as was expected for years with his development in the minors. When Pittsburgh selected him in the second round, this is where they projected him to be.

Jarry met the requirements as the next Penguins starter as he put together a solid 2019-20 campaign with a .921 save percentage, a 2.43 goals-against average, and an All-Star selection to go along with it.

While the Pens went with Murray in the postseason, they quickly regretted their decision. Only months later, Jarry signed an extension that saw Murray pack his bags for Ottawa.

Now the only question will be if Jarry is indeed a bona fide number one starter. He put together an exceptional season last year with Murray beside him, but will he be able to do it all by his lonesome?

Power play upgrade

The Penguins power play ranked in the middle of the pack last season, finishing with a 19.9 % success rate. With the re-hiring of Todd Reirden, the Pens look to revive a once potent power play.

Before taking an assistant coaching gig with the Washington Capitals, which turned into a Head Coaching job, Reirden oversaw a well-oiled power play unit in Pittsburgh from 2010-14, ranking within the top three in the league.

The once lethal power play has struggled in Phil Kessel’s absence, who provided another trigger man on the wing. Pittsburgh failed to find his replacement last season, but Kapanen or Rust should slide in there to be the go-to right-handed shot. Kapanen is the most compelling person to fit this role, especially with his quick release.

Also, with the trade of Hornqvist, Guentzal will now most likely be their mainstay down-low to operate below the goal-line and in front of the net.

Pittsburgh will see an increase in production with Reirden reclaiming the ropes and the new personnel added to this unit.

Difficult division

The Penguins do get to avoid a handful of tough competitors like Columbus or Carolina, but they remain in arguably the toughest division in the new format. Theoretically, seven out of the eight teams have a shot at making the playoffs.

Philadelphia is the clear-cut number one in this division as they have put together a solid lineup with Giroux and Voracek leading the way. Their young blue-line can make a huge step this season, along with Carter Hart, who looks to solidify himself as one of the league’s premier netminders.

Boston and Washington are always playoff contenders with their strong offensive cores, but both defenses are lackluster this season. Boston lost it’s top two defensemen to free agency, while the Capitals hold hockey’s oldest roster. However, these two are always threats to make a playoff spot.

Both teams from New York also can make their case as postseason hopefuls. The Rangers have put together one of the best rebuilds in NHL history. An already pre-existing deadly offense has added the number one prospect in the draft with comparisons to Sid the Kid. Alexis Lafreniere can be the real deal and a huge impact from the jump. On the other hand, the Islanders will always be contenders as long as Barry Trotz remains there. A structured system focused on defense and goaltending with Matt Barzal leading the charge upfront makes this team dangerous in this division.

Do not count Buffalo out of the picture either. Jack Eichel and company look to take the next step this season in being a legitimate contender for a playoff spot. With Eric Staal and Taylor Hall’s additions in the offseason, the Sabres greatly improved their offense around Eichel. It will be a matter of goaltending in Buffalo for them to make a jump.

While the Penguins season will be a matter of wait and see, they can extend the longest active playoff streak to 15 straight seasons. Although it may be tough, the Penguins have the pieces to get it done and potentially make a run at the cup one more time before the end of an era.


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